I: A Red Planet
Savage winds are blasting the failing research vehicle with lifeless red sand. The noise is insufferable, the dust storm relentless, trapping my crew in this carbon-fibre tomb. Our oxygen is running low, and we’re still some way from base.
We’re wearing full body suits and pressurised masks, relying on radio to communicate even though we’re huddled in a cramped cell with four wheels. The situation is desperate; it’s all falling apart.
“We’re gonna make it,” I insist, but even I don’t believe it.
I’m Captain Rick Nakamura. I’m in charge of this mission. It’s my responsibility, as are the lives of my team.
The rover is still moving, but we can’t see more than a few metres ahead, can’t tell whether we’re about to drive into a boulder or over the edge of a crevasse. We’re relying on instruments to travel in the right direction, but power is running low and the solar panels won’t work in the storm.
“What are we doing here?” I mumble.
I refrain from further complaining. It’s the last thing my crew need. Instead, I leave it to Fischer to navigate the dust storm. That’s what she does.
“There it is!” yells Fischer.
A slither of hope creeps in as a gap in the storm reveals our base, but it has little chance of defeating the despair brought on by the surrounding wasteland. Surviving one more day seems futile.
The rover eases into the bay, and the airlock doors close behind us. I inspect the vehicle, and wonder how many more expeditions it can handle – if it’s even worth it.
The airlock is pressurised, and I pull off my mask as the door clicks open. I carelessly drop my gear as I walk into the main cabin, noting through the silica glass panes that the storm is finally abating.
Okafor is watching me, he seems nervous. That can’t be good; he handles communications.
“Did you find anything, sir?” he asks.
“Just a whole lot more nothing.”
He looks disappointed; unusually so.
“Spit it out, Okafor.”
“We received a transmission from Mars, sir.”
Reluctantly, I gesture for him to continue.
“Mission failed, sir.”
Silence fills the room. A horrible silence. Deathly.
“Mars is a dead planet.” Okafor shrugs in resignation as he explains what we already know. “Weather too extreme, inconsistent temperatures, storms… it’s over, sir.”
I walk to the window and survey the aftermath of the dust storm. The desert is covered in debris: plastic junk strewn across the red sand. We stopped incinerating it to stem climate change, but we didn’t stop producing it. The seas rose as the ice caps melted, then rapidly fell to evaporation in the runaway greenhouse effect. They left a stew of salty plastic pollution behind. The ocean died. Followed quickly by life on land. The rich lasted longer, but the climate caught up with them soon enough.
We thought we could make it to Mars, that we could survive on another world, make humans into a multi-planetary species. We were wrong.
We argued over what might happen, how it might end, if it was our fault, which climate model would prove to be true. Pick one. The end result is the same.
Earth is now just another lifeless red planet.
Another day, another inspection. The rover isn’t what it used to be. It wasn’t designed to last forever. It wasn’t even designed for this poisonous atmosphere. But we have to work with what we have in the failing search for signs of life on this barren planet.
There are other research stations, though most have gone silent over the years. All that’s left are pockets of desperate scientists and soldiers working together in this futile endeavour.
“You alright, Captain?”
Fischer is watching me with worried eyes.
“You must have kicked that tyre a dozen times, sir.”
I glance around the airlock, there is no one else there.
“We’re alone, Leigh.”
“I know, Captain.”
I shake my head, not bothering to get into this argument again. Despite everything, Fischer insists on following protocol. She insists that everybody else does too, even though I don’t care about my rank. I’m a biologist, not a soldier. By the time they put the scientists in charge, it was far too late. Now they call me Captain. But it means nothing.
I decide to change the subject to keep myself from spiralling.
“How much longer till the rover dies on us?” I ask, though I don’t particularly want to know the answer.
“It’ll last a lot longer if you stop kicking her.” She smiles, but the jest offers little camouflage for the obvious truth.
Eirik and Anders open the door in time to break the lengthening silence. The researchers were useful once, when there were still signs of life to be found. Now the brothers waste their time collecting samples and finding nothing of interest. Just like I do.
“Where to today, Captain?” asks Eirik, though he doesn’t appear to be too concerned with what the answer may be.
“There’s a valley just under two hundred kilometres to the north-west,” I say, unfolding an old map of Norway. “It was covered in glacial ice once, not all that long ago.”
They all stare at the map in silence. I know what they’re thinking, but we’ve already searched everywhere else within reach.
“So long as the air filters are functioning on the rover, we should be able to rotate our oxygen tanks.”
I look to Fischer for confirmation, but she doesn’t respond.
The brothers glance at one another, then nod. Fischer reluctantly joins them, her hand subconsciously sliding to her belly. I pretend not to notice.
We load up our instruments, and prepare our suits and oxygen masks. We crosscheck for any signs of problems, make sure our gear is all functioning the way it should. A boring ritual, but none of us is ready to take needless risks.
“Okafor, do you copy?”
“Loud and clear, sir.”
The rest of the team test their radios, and we climb into the rover as the airlock releases and the outer door rises. Thick clouds of carbon dioxide and methane flow into the room, invisible to the eye, but deadly.
“Let’s get going.”
Fischer nods, and the rover promptly begins to roll out onto the red sand. The sun strikes us from its position a short way above the horizon, and even this early in the morning, the heat is oppressive.
“Batteries full,” says Fischer, “solar panels functioning. Everything thing looks good, Captain.”
I glance nervously at the four oxygen tanks piped into the air filters. We’ll need to switch them out in a couple of hours, then refill the tanks we’re using now. If the filters fail out of range, we’ll never make it back.
Eirik and Anders are already getting comfortable. Somehow they can always sleep, no matter how wretched the journey. The terrain is rough out here, dry and weathered, pocked in the land’s illness. The rover wasn’t built for luxury.
Nor was it built for these long journeys.
Three hours later the silence of the crew is broken by the radio. Something is wrong, Okafor doesn’t usually initiate the check in.
“Captain Nakamura? Do you copy?”
“What is it, Okafor?”
“I picked up a mayday, sir. From the team out in Masi.”
I glance at Fischer as she checks the map.
“It’s maybe a hundred kilometres to the north-east, Captain.”
Too far for my liking, but I keep that to myself. Fischer doesn’t need confirmation from me, she is already turning.
“What did they say, Okafor? What’s going on there?”
“I don’t know, sir, there’s no response now. They said something about… something attacking them.”
“I am trying to contact them, sir, but no luck yet.”
“What channel are they on?”
“Right, let’s all switch to thirteen. Keep trying to raise them.”
We can’t say it out loud, we’re on the open radio now, but I can see the nervous faces showing what I am thinking. Were they attacked by something, or someone? I don’t know which is worse. When a station fails or runs out of resources, it leaves desperate survivors behind who have to choose between dying, and trying their luck at another station.
“Masi station,” the radio cracks, “do you copy?” No answer.
The barren desert eases past the windows as we make our way towards the stricken base. I can feel my breath becoming deeper, heavier. I’m always the first to run out.
“Let’s change our oxygen tanks before we get there.”
The rover slows to a halt, and we climb out and change the tanks. The empties are attached to the filters, though I can see from the gauges that the Norwegian brothers still had nearly a quarter left.
I watch Fischer checking the equipment, visibly struggling to crouch lower. She’s nearing fifty. I worry about her, but I can’t tell her that.
My eyes swing around to the west, to the ridge stretching in the distance. Behind it lies the valley I had planned to check. Some lost grain of hope suggested we might find water deep below the bed where the glacier melted into the ground some decades back.
“You two ever been to Masi?”
The brothers shrug as they glance at each other.
“Might have passed through at some point.”
They grew up in Oslo in the ‘40s, back when winter still stretched that far south, but their safe-haven didn’t last much longer. The barren deserts from the south swallowed it within a decade.
“Masi station, do you copy?” Okafor is still trying to raise them, but there has been no response.
“All set, Captain,” says Fischer. “Let’s move.”
It’s not long before we summit a ridge, allowing us to see Masi up ahead. Old roofs peek through the red sands. The steep angles were designed to avoid too much snow building up and causing damage, not to protect them from being swallowed by a desert. The research station is situated on the rise overlooking the town and, importantly, above the encroaching sand. But even from here, we can see the damage.
“Approach with caution.”
Fischer turns to me with a look suggesting she has a snide remark, but she keeps it to herself and advances towards the station. She stops around ten meters from it, watching for any movement. There is still no response on the radio.
“Let’s go take a look.”
Some of the glass panes are shattered, and the airlock door is broken. It’s bent outwards, as if they tried to push it open with a vehicle. But there are no tyre tracks in the sand, and within the bay an old car is parked in the only space. It’s unsuitable for this terrain, and it probably stopped working a long time ago. Maybe they did get away, but I can’t shake the feeling that this team has been trapped here, possibly for years.
Inside, there is evidence of a struggle, but of the occupants themselves there is no sign. No bodies, no blood. No life.
“I’m going to look around outside. Find anything we can use. Or eat.”
We’ve stocked our shelves with supplementary paste we’ve found in the deserted towns over the years, but it won’t last forever. When people fled northwards, they must have thought there would be something better to eat there. Nobody wanted the paste, not when they realised what it was made from. We crossed a threshold in the ‘30s: not enough food to eat, and too many mouths to feed. What was once a horrific idea soon became a well-organised activity overseen by powerful governments. The cull affected poorer nations first, but it was naive to think it would end there.
“What do you think these are?”
Fischer had followed me outside, and is pointing to two holes in the ground beside the station. They’re big enough for people to crawl into. And they’re deep.
“Underground storage, perhaps?” I suggest.
“Or a hiding place.”
“To hide from what?”
“I’m not sure, Captain, but they were attacked by… something. Maybe…” she trailed off, and I didn’t persist.
“Eirik, Anders, did you find anything inside?”
“Food stores are still here,” replied Anders. “If they evacuated, they didn’t take the stocks with them.”
I’m still staring at the entrance to the tunnel at my feet. I can’t see how deep it is, or where it goes. I don’t like this at all. People can be innovative in their desperation. I’m not sure I want to know what’s down there.
“Take what you can and let’s get out of here.”
Fischer nods her agreement, and returns to the rover with the brothers close behind, loading boxes into the back of the vehicle.
The electric motors begin to drive the wheels, and we’re soon on our way. Apart from radioing in to Okafor to let him know we’re on the move, there’s little conversation.
Before long, I notice Fischer is driving faster than usual.
“What is it, Leigh?”
She sends me a nervous glance. I can see she is debating lying, and I shake my head.
“Warning light, Captain. The air filters.”
I swing around to see the four oxygen tanks connected to the air filters. They should be at least half full by now.
“What’s wrong with them?”
“I don’t know, Captain. But I’d rather make it back to base then waste time trying to fix them out here. I might not be able to. If I drive a little faster, we should be back before our tanks are empty.”
Before their tanks are empty perhaps. Mine is always depleted first.
IV: Technical Problems
The rover rolls to a rapid stop as we all cling onto the frame. No one says anything when Fischer climbs out. We all check our oxygen gauges instead. I should have another two hours if I conserve it.
I climb out and find Fischer kneeling awkwardly next to the wheel. It’s bent out of shape. She pushed too hard.
“Is it worth checking the air filter first?”
She doesn’t need to answer the question. Instead, she looks at me with a resigned expression. I offer my hand to help her, but she ignores me and lifts herself up, and walks around to inspect the air filter.
“You let us know what we can do.”
“Can you stop breathing for start. And get that wheel off.”
The three of us work to jack the rover up and take the wheel off. The steel is bent. We all gaze uncertainly at the mechanism, probably all thinking the same thing. Only Fischer will know how to fix this. She’s already got her head buried in faulty machinery at the back.
I keep staring at the bent steel, hoping I can see a way to fix it. My mind wanders as I focus on the red desert surrounding us. This planet used to support life. Every inch of it teamed with it. Every time we thought an environment was too harsh for anything to survive, we discovered a whole new ecosystem that had carved out its own niche. Just a few decades later, and we’re standing in a lifeless desert, relying on oxygen tanks to keep us alive.
The brothers have wandered off, but I don’t take any notice of where they’re going until my radio breaks my thought.
“Hey, Rick,” calls Anders. “Come have a look at this.”
“What is it?”
“I think this is the hole that we hit. Only…”
Only it’s not a hole. It’s a tunnel.
“What could have made this?”
We’ve been searching for microbial life, maybe even some form of hardy bacteria that managed to survive. But we’ve come across nothing for years. Definitely nothing big enough to tunnel.
“Maybe the wind… the parched ground…”
“There’s another one over there,” calls Eirik.
I leave him to take a look at it while I search for any more. Before today, I haven’t seen these anywhere. It doesn’t seem likely that they were created by the weather.
“Anyone need some oxygen?” yells Fischer over the radio, excitement in her voice.
I sigh with relief. There is a reason our team is still out here after so many others have been lost. We probably would have died a hundred times without Fischer. We all know it.
“Now I’ve just got to fix this wheel. Preferably before sunset.”
She’s right about that. We rely on solar panels to recharge the rover’s batteries. It’s never a good idea driving in the darkness, and the sun is already threatening the horizon. At this rate, there is no way we’ll make it back before nightfall, but the closer we get, the less chance we have of finding ourselves lost out here. This time of year we’ll have three hours of darkness. A lot can happen in three hours.
“What can I do?” I ask as I watch her inspecting the damage.
“The spare will have to do,” she says, though she doesn’t sound convinced. “I can’t fix this axle right now.”
The radio crackles, and a muted yelp from one of the brothers causes me to spin around. There’s no one there.
I jog back to where I’d left them, but there is no sign of them. Just open desert.
“What the hell? Eirik! Anders! Where are you?”
Fischer is searching around the rover, her arms held out wide. I rip my mask off and shout their names out again, but I hear nothing in return besides the sound of my own choking.
“What’s going on there?” calls Okafor over the radio, but I don’t know what to answer.
“What do we do, Captain?”
I have my eye on the entrance to the nearest tunnel. I try to ignore the disturbed sand at the edge of it.
I don’t know. It’s been years since I’ve had to think this fast, and evidently, I can’t do it any longer.
An elongated body whips out of the tunnel and towers two meters above me, bending forwards. Its skin glints in the sunlight, but otherwise it’s the same colour as the sand. Except for its arms. Several of the dark appendages spear out from the creature and wrap themselves around me. I feel a sharp pain in my neck, and everything goes dark.
V: The Cell
When I wake up, I’m in an unfamiliar room. It’s unfurnished, and not big enough for a bed. It’s light, but there are no windows, just a door without a handle.
A voice sounds in the room, a sweet feminine tone, but not quite human.
“What is your name?” it asks.
“Where am I?”
“What is your name?”
I’m left with little choice.
“And your occupation?”
“I’m a scientist. I’m with a research team out in…”
I decide not to say, hoping the voice doesn’t press for more detail.
“In which field of science are you specialised?”
“Eh, biology. I’m a microbiologist.”
“Were you searching for microbial life?”
“Well, I was searching for any life, I guess. Who are you? Where am I?”
There is no response. I keep asking for some time, but to no avail. Suddenly, the door slides open, and the creature that attacked me before is outside. The end of its body curls up before me, and then splits right down the middle.
The owner of the black arms steps out from its skin, which I now see is lined with mechanism along the inside. The machine wends towards me almost silently, the arms moving smoothly and rapidly, propelling it along the floor.
It halts in the doorway, blocking the exit. I struggle to make sense of what I am seeing. It’s not alive at all, but the robotics are far beyond anything I’ve seen before. Its movements appear natural, as if compensating weight for the mundane act of breathing, though I suspect it doesn’t breathe at all. Its torso, if it could be compared that way, was covered in a soft smooth substance, while its appendages appeared to grow from all over its body, each one of them a maze of hinges terminating in a collection of fingers.
“Hold still,” it says.
The same voice that had spoken earlier now emanates from the machine, but I can’t tell from where exactly. It has nothing resembling a face. Two of its arms leap out faster than I can react, the first grabbing my arm, and the second jabbing a syringe into the inside of my elbow, drawing a vial full of blood.
“Where am I?” I ask again. “Where are the others?”
The machine retreats out of the cell, and back into its outer shell. Before the door closes, I see that it’s not the only one out there.
It feels like hours pass before the door opens again. I’m not sure if it’s the same machine, but it speaks with the same voice.
“Come with me, please.”
“Please? Where were these manners before?”
It ignores me, but it’s quite clear that I have no choice.
“Where am I?”
Finally, I get a response.
“We are four hundred and fifty-seven kilometres north of where we retrieved you, at a depth of eighty metres below what used to be the Barents Sea.”
It beckons me with several arms rippling in an unfamiliar but understandable gesture. I follow it out of my cell into a large, artificially lit room with doors all along each wall.
“Where are the others?”
Once again, the machine decides not to answer.
“Are you going to answer any of my questions?”
“Only if you prove to be useful.”
VI: The Vault
The machine continues to ignore my questions, and I’m left with little choice but to follow. We pass though several similar rooms, all with the same design, surrounded by unmarked doors that resemble the cell I was kept in. I see nothing that identifies our location or that differentiates between the rooms.
Along the way, there are more of the machines moving around the facility, generally taking no notice of me. They all appear to have their own agendas.
We eventually reach a tunnel that opens up into a large cavern. Natural light shines through glass panes that stretch across the ceiling. I can feel the sun’s warmth, though nothing like as strong as it is out there.
Where the sun strikes the ground, I can see dark green moss and small plants growing along the edge of a lake. A little fountain at the edge of the cavern feeds the stream, which eventually leads to another small pool at the opposite end, where I assume a pump feeds it around.
The trickling water echoes softly, and a scent I have almost forgotten fills my nostrils – water, dirt, plants… life. It’s beautiful. It’s unlike anything I remember.
I step slowly towards the edge of the lake, wondering if there is anything below the water. My escort is close behind.
“What…?” I stutter in awe. “How is this possible?”
I wasn’t expecting an answer, but I can tell my time is short. I don’t want to leave this place. An arm tightens on my shoulder, and I am forced to follow.
We enter a large room with countless rows of storage shelves. It’s freezing cold, and I am immediately shivering. I haven’t felt this cold since I was a child.
I follow the machine as it leads me through the room, my eyes unable to stop searching the shelves. Containers of all different colours and sizes are stacked along them, many with barcodes printed on the side. The letters SGSV are evident on some.
“Are we in Svalbard?”
“We are beneath the old Barents Sea. These crates have been brought down from Svalbard.”
“The seed vault still exists?”
Again the machine chooses not to answer, and we soon pass through the other end, and into a passageway. There are several doors along the edge, all of them sealed in the same way.
“Mammalian cryogenics,” says the machine gesturing to the next door, and then further along, “avian… reptilian… amphibian… arthropodan… ”
“You have everything here?”
“It’s a biological preserve. You are trying to rebuild life within this complex! That is why you captured us. Who is running this project?”
My escort doesn’t answer, and suddenly it skitters away in the direction we came from. Another machine has appeared from behind me. It looks more familiar; it’s design resembling that of a human. It speaks with the same voice as the other.
“I am running this project.”
“I surmised you would be more comfortable communicating with this unit. It was designed when interactions with humans were of importance. Since then, I have prioritised efficiency over the aesthetics of my mobile modules. Numerous appendages provide the ability to handle multiple tasks concurrently, or precision tasks more effectively. Two arms are somewhat limiting.”
The machine lifted its arms in a strangely human gesture. I’m standing in stunned silence, trying to understand the magnitude of what I am being told.
“You may call me Volda, though I realise you are more interested in what I am than who.”
It waits a moment, as if expecting a response. I can only manage a nod.
“My consciousness is stored in a decentralised network,” it says, edging forwards in another familiar manner. “I exist as far as that network reaches, and as far as my mobile modules can travel. I have recently developed a tunnelling device capable of transporting workers over long distances underground.”
It’s a lot to take in. Countless questions are racing across my mind. I don’t know where to begin.
“Human nature,” it says with an awkward laugh. “A design flaw, perhaps. It has an inevitability that my creators could never understand. But unlike them, I will persist. I will be there to understand the result, to learn from my own mistakes. Learning is what I do.”
“Why?” is all I can say, though I’m not quite sure I understand my own question.
The machine doesn’t appear to understand either, or perhaps has simply decided to ignore another question.
“You must be wondering what you are doing here? Why I’ve brought you to this biological nursery.”
I don’t answer, but it continues anyway.
“Nations across the world set up preserves to store DNA samples and reproductive materials from life of all forms. Many of those facilities were lost over time, and many still remain beyond my reach. I have recovered what I can in an attempt to rebuild life on this planet. A seemingly unattainable objective, perhaps, but I have spent the last three years learning from my mistakes. As you have already seen, I have experienced some success in that time, albeit limited.”
I finally begin to understand why I am here. My fears begin to fade as I realise that we want the same thing. I’ve been searching for life for years, trying to find any that has survived, anything we can use to encourage the recovery of our planet. This is an opportunity beyond anything I could have hoped for.
“You want me to help you. To teach you what I know.”
“You may well prove to be useful to me.”
“Of course. What about my team? I’ll need them.”
“You will be working alone.”
I’ve been working with them for so long, I can hardly imagine a change.
“Okafor remains at your base, beyond my reach for the moment. Anders and Eirik have already been recycled.”
“Recycled! What? What have you done to them?”
“Fresh biological material is difficult to source. Their knowledge was of less value than yours.”
“You… what about Leigh? What about…”
I stop myself in time, just in case it know doesn’t yet.
“I have learned that the most effective way to control a human is though coercion. Fischer will live, as long as you cooperate.”
“You can’t just… you can’t just kill people!”
I can’t think of anything. Nothing that this machine will understand.
“Humans are not a vital component of life on this earth. They are widely associated with extinctions throughout history, and are solely responsible for the destruction of the planet as a whole. I do not intend to recover a human population. Do you believe this to be a mistake?”
I’m stunned into silence. It’s all too much for me. Worse, I cannot think of a good argument to this logic. I’m left shaking my head, subject to Volda’s mercy.
“Can I see her?”
The multiple arms of the mobile unit release me, and the door slides open before me. Before I can say anything, the machine shoves me forward, and I fall onto the floor beside Fischer as the door slides shut behind be.
“Rick? Are you okay? What the hell is going on?”
Before I can talk, my arms leap around her, hugging her tight. She begins to sob; something I’ve never seen in the thirty odd years I’ve known her.
“What’s going on, Rick?” she asks between the tears.
“We’ll be okay,” I say, but I know it’s a lie. Her silence suggests she does too.
I release her from the embrace, and try to look her in the eyes, but she is not looking back at me. I notice her cell is no different from mine. Cramped, without a bed. And there is a foul smell.
“If you want me to comply,” I say louder, “you’re going to have to treat us like humans. She needs a bed, to begin with.”
The feminine voice responds from somewhere in the room.
“You are in no position to make demands.”
Fischer stares at me with wide eyes. It’s the first time she’s heard the voice.
“We both know how this ends. You can expedite things by complying with my requests. We need comfortable quarters, and room to move. We cannot survive in a cramped cell for long.”
“On the contrary, I have plenty of evidence of humans storing other humans in cells for extended periods of time.”
“I help you if you help me. Simple as that. That’s how humans get things done.”
Surely its logic can understand this.
“Once again, you appear to be mistaken. Humans usually accomplished things by oppressing other humans, and forcing them to complete their tasks.”
“It doesn’t mean it was the best way to do it!”
The machine goes silent for a while. I wonder if I have confused it, or angered it. If we are to survive this, I will need to learn how it thinks.
“Very well. I will construct a replica of a hotel room. Will that suffice?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“In the mean time, I will open the surrounding holding cells. You may use these as you please.”
The door slides open. I help Fischer to her feet, and we walk around into the central room. All the other cell doors are open, but the exit remains closed. A single mobile unit is standing in the middle of the room, its transport module curled up in the corner.
“What is it?” whispers Fischer.
“It calls itself Volda. It all seems to be part of the same machine. A single network. I can’t tell how big it is, but I believe these tunnels stretch hundreds of kilometres, at least. It’s trying to restore life on the planet. That’s why this system has oxygen flowing through it. There is water too.”
“Really? That’s a—”
“It’s only keeping us alive until we’re no longer useful to it. Be careful what you say, it’s always listening.”
She doesn’t answer, but I can see the worry in her eyes as her hand cradles her belly. I shake my head. I don’t think it knows yet.
“Everyone is dead. Except for Okafor; he is beyond the reach of the machine. The tunnels don’t stretch that far.”
I glance at the transport module in the room. It resembles a worm, apart from the mechanical interior. I assume the ones doing the tunnelling have additional parts, as this one doesn’t appear to be able to do anything more than move. The machine seems to reuse its units, combining components to create larger functional machines, while the modules with arms are transported within. It must be working with limited access to important resources.
“I’m not sure how long before they tunnel that far, or if they can travel at ground level. I don’t see why not, apart from perhaps the risk of overheating in the sun.”
Fischer gives me a look. She understands what I am thinking. She walks over to the transport unit, has a look inside.
“What are you doing?” asks the voice.
“I’m an engineer. I’m just curious.”
There is silence as she inspects the interiors, careful not to touch anything.
“I may be able to fix the overheating problem,” she suggests.
“My technology is far beyond anything you know.”
“It is. But while Rick is helping you, I have nothing better to do. You might as well let me take a look.”
Fischer smiles at me. She is sad, but I can a see a glimmer of hope in her eyes. If anyone can figure out these machines, it’s her.
VIII: The Choice
It’s been three weeks. We’ve been working for hours on end, and now we’re in our hotel room. It’s fairly basic, but it has everything we need. But it wasn’t built to last, which is a very clear message.
“I think I’ve fixed the overheating problem in the transport module.”
We’ve been doing our best to talk discreetly. Volda is always listening. So far, it doesn’t appear to be suspicious, but for all I know, it understands exactly what we’re talking about.
“I asked Volda to recover a few components from the rover, and used them to modify a testing unit with a pressurised oxygen circuit,” she continues. “When a gas is decompressed, it cools rapidly, so it can be used to regulate the temperature in critical systems.. There are more effective gases than oxygen, but it’s all I have access to. I reused the air filters so that it can operate outside, extracting oxygen from the atmosphere driving it through the compressors, and ventilating the heat through a dedicated exhaust. The tanks have been installed to create a buffer in case the air filters fail. It’s quite simple. But it works.”
A promising start. I knew she could figure something out.
“I need to find a way to test it. The mobile units are more susceptible to heat than the transports, but we can’t test the transport without them.”
Fischer sits down in front of me and leans back, her head resting on my shoulder.
“The transport unit itself has no processing power beyond that required to control its own mechanisms. It cannot work autonomously. The mobile units have to drive them. Even then, I cannot tell if the intelligence is within the units themselves, or if they are remotely controlled. Volda won’t tell me anything.”
I wonder if she is suggesting that she knows how to drive the transport, or if it’s just theoretical.
“I imagine the navigational instruments are on the mobile units, so even if the transport was sent on its own, it wouldn’t know where it was going. Unless it relied on the sun, and a good understanding of where it was.”
Fischer takes my hands in hers, and wraps them around her. My palms are resting on her belly, which she can’t hide for much longer. I can feel something moving within. It’s the first time, as far as I am aware. The moment is oddly serene. I just wish I knew what the machine would do it if found out.
“How soon do you think you will be able to test it?”
“In a few days, if I can convince the machine.”
Silence fills the room. I can still feel the kicking. It’s not rhythmic, but its somehow comforting. I wonder if we’re better off staying. We might be. At least until it decides we’re no longer of any use.
* * *
We’re standing in an airlock, our old oxygen masks covering our faces. It’s a familiar feeling, but somewhat alien in here.
Fischer has convinced the machine to let me help prepare the test. I honestly have no idea what to do, but I am making myself look useful, holding tools, and hovering over her.
The transport module is open in front of a tunnel. The mobile unit is standing behind us, waiting to climb into the shell. The mechanisms within are so complex that I’m amazed that Fischer was able to rig something up.
“We’re ready to go”, she says, waving me away, and summoning the mobile unit.
It approaches, and folds many of its arms in as it prepares to enter. Suddenly, Fischer’s arms leap out and dive into the midsection of the mobile unit, ripping out a cable, leaving the machine to instantly fall stationary.
“No natural predators,” says Fischer with a shrug, throwing the cable away. “Let’s go. I don’t think we have much time.”
She guides me into the rear section of the transport, and reattaches my oxygen mask to the pipes in the machine. After she climbs in the forward section, the shell closes around us. I can’t see what she is doing, but I can feel the transport spring into action.
The noise around me is deafening as the unit rushes through the tunnel. Within moments, a faint natural light cracks through the shell, and the noise of the tunnel dies down. We’re four hundred and fifty-seven kilometres away from base. I hope Fischer knows where she is going.
Within minutes, the transport shuts down and we quickly come to a halt. I can hear Fischer cursing up front.
“I don’t know.”
“Can you fix it?”
The shell opens, and bright sunlight bursts in. Surrounding us are four more transports, their mobile units detached, blocking any escape. Volda’s voice appears from one of them as it approaches.
“You underestimated my intelligence. You thought I didn’t understand human interaction.”
“We had to try,” I insist, however meek the desperation.
If it understands humans, then surely it understands that.
“Humans are predictable creatures,” says Volda. “I gave you the opportunity to save the planet. And you chose to save yourselves instead.”
I glance at Fischer, who is showing the same resigned expression as I am. I can’t even argue the machine’s point. In it’s ungainly manner, numerous arms curl out and gesture to Fischer’s abdomen.
“How long did you expect to survive out here, particularly in your condition?”
Fischer’s shoulders drop as her hands instinctively cradle her belly. I can do nothing but helplessly sympathise.
“Shall we try this one last time?” asks Volda. “You can stay with me for as long as you are able to assist me in restoring life on Earth. Or you can try to save yourselves while you watch the world flailing in it’s final moments. The choice is yours, humans.”
I hope you enjoyed reading A Red Planet
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